DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: Chantal Akerman in the Seventies: Eclipse Series 19

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  1. Matt Hough

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    Apr 24, 2006
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    Chantal Akerman in the Seventies

    La Chambre/ Hotel Monterey/News from Home/Je Tu Il Elle/ Les Rendez-vous D’Anna
    Directed by Chantal Akerman

    Studio: Criterion/Eclipse #19
    Year: 1972-1978
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1/1.66:1 anamorphic
    Running Time: 11/62/86/86/126 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
    Subtitles: English
    MSRP: $ 44.95

    Release Date: January 19, 2010
    Review Date: January 9, 2010
    The Films
    Director Chantal Akerman’s ability to find interesting compositions in the mundane world around her has been implemented into both fiction and nonfiction films she has made during her career. The five films contained in this package consist of three nonfiction films along with two somewhat traditional narratives. In each one, she uses her powers of observation (always acute, sometimes slavishly indulgent) to make her movies force us to search the ordinary for something extraordinary. She often succeeds.
    La Chambre/Hotel Monterey/News from Home - 3/5
    These three non-narrative observational pieces start small and branch the viewing canvas ever-wider with each successive effort. In the first, we watch as a camera makes two 360° sweeps of an apartment’s kitchen and bedroom. At first we glimpse a leaky faucet, a half eaten muffin, and a woman (the director actually) lounging in bed, but the woman finds things to do whenever the camera settles back on her (writhing in the bed, eating an apple). The second film finds the camera planted in the Monterey Hotel, mostly stationary, and just allowed to run. We see the lobby, the elevators, the hallways, stairwells, beds and baths, and eventually the camera begins moving toward a window as we see the view outside and then head up to the roof for exploration up there. The third takes us on an extended tour of New York City in 1976: its streets, its stores, its subways, its skyline. The only place we go in is the subway terminal and a subway car; everything else is seen from the outside looking in while on the soundtrack the director reads letters she received from her mother while she was in America studying filmmaking. The overlong final image, the city’s skyline as the Staten Island ferry chugs away from Manhattan, is at the same moment beautiful and forlorn, the Twin Towers looming over the rest of the city’s architecture as seagulls soar and dip in their own instinctive way.
    So what is Chantal Akerman up to with these three pieces? She obviously finds enthrallment with the commonplace. Hotel Monterey allows us to study the arrangement of lines, shapes, and colors throughout the hotel making marvelous geometric conglomerations. News from Home is valuable for its picture of a place that seems at odds with her mother’s pleas for her to be safe in the world’s most dangerous city, happy that she’s made friends (though almost everyone we see in the movie apart from a pair of lovers on a subway platform seem rampantly, triumphantly alone). The director learned much about the kinds of films and the style she’d be using to tell stories during her New York years which makes these three films, as sometimes tedious as they are, also rather fascinating, too. After watching them, it's so clear to see how they influence her directorial style once she begins making narrative movies.
    Je Tu Il Elle – 3.5/5
    Julie (Chantal Akerman) has just experienced a broken love affair and takes considerable time getting herself back together which involves pages of letters expressing her feelings, bags of pure sugar eaten with a spoon, and lots of nudity. Once reconnected to life, she begins hitchhiking and makes the acquaintance of a friendly trucker (Niels Arestrup) who later deposits her on the doorstep of a former lesbian lover (Claire Wauthion) with whom she also worms her way back into her good graces.
    Akerman’s study of abandonment and reconnection is sexually free and uninhibited, but it only really registers in the film’s second half after Julie decides to rejoin on her own terms the human race. She works her angles almost wordlessly, and yet how persistently she manages to hold on to what she wants at any given time! She follows the truck driver to the bathroom and adoringly watches him shave and urinate. She ignores her former lover’s statement that she wants her to leave, gets her to make her some sandwiches, and then seduces her. (Could her neediness and smothering hold on a partner be why she’s left alone and aching at the beginning of the movie? We’re not furnished any information.) As with her nonfiction works, Akerman takes her time with shots; nothing is ever rushed, and the camera indulgently lingers on some images that aren’t frankly all that interesting. The film’s opening half is also diluted somewhat by the director’s voiceover narration though what she says is not always what we see her do, at least not at the instant she says it. Regardless, it’s a rather tiresome motif that she thankfully dispenses with once the character goes out into the world.
    Les Rendez-vous D’Anna – 4/5
    Celebrated filmmaker Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) leads a nomadic existence making films and then traveling the world attending their openings. Rootless and uncomplaining, she has a series of encounters with a group of people including strangers (Helmut Griem, Hanns Zischler), friends (Magali Noel, Jean-Pierre Cassel), and family (Lea Massari) who represent portions of herself either past or present that she’s uncomfortable with and wishes to escape.
    The best of the films in the collection, Les Rendez-vous D’Anna is as generally plotless as Akerman’s previous fictional movie in this set, but in this one we’re allowed inside the central character through means of the people who surround her. Their stories (like many Akerman protagonists, Anna lets other do most of the talking save for one revelatory confession of a lesbian encounter to her mother), all melancholy expressions of loneliness, disappointment, restlessness, or longing, are the very feelings Anna is running from, and Akerman’s many static set-ups where Anna and another share the frame while the sad stories unfold never grow stale despite the lack of shot variety. Excellent acting, especially Griem as the solitary divorcee aching for companionship and Lea Massari as her miserable mother who misses her daughter so terribly, make the film well worth watching and savoring.
    Video Quality
    La Chambre/Hotel Monterey/News from Home – 2.5/5
    All three are framed at 1.33:1 (shot in 16mm) and show some of the ravages of time. La Chambre contains quite a few scratches and much dirt and debris though color is nicely saturated (a red chair really stands out). Hotel Monterey and News from Home are not very sharp with color in the latter somewhat washed out and lacking in density. Using the natural lighting in the hotel, many of the images are somewhat crushed in the shadows. A bothersome hair turns up in a few shots of News from Home. Hotel Monterey has been divided into 7 chapters while News from Home is divided into 9 chapters. Subtitles on News from Home are bright white and very easy to read.
    Je Tu Il Elle – 4/5
    The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in a mostly stunning image that’s completely free from the age related dust, scratches, and debris that marred the three previous films. The grayscale is wonderfully delivered with usually excellent contrast here only crushing some blacks in certain shots and thus limiting details in those shadows which might have been important. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 9 chapters.
    Les Rendez-vous D’Anna – 4.5/5
    The film’s 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented in a transfer anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Another clean, beautiful print has been used for this disc, and while color may be a shade undersaturated, detail is excellent, and blacks are rich and luminous. Only the slightest bit or moiré spoils an otherwise pristine picture. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the movie has been divided into 11 chapters.
    Audio Quality
    News from Home - 2/5
    La Chambre and Hotel Monterey are completely silent so there are no audio score for them. News from Home features a Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track that is loaded with hiss and some occasional crackle and a slight buzz in the film’s latter half. Eclipse features generally are not cleaned up for release, so the film’s poor soundtrack is no surprise.
    Je Tu Il Elle and Les Rendez-vous D’Anna – 3.5/5
    The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track for each film is a solid achievement. There are no pops, crackle, hiss, or flutter to mar the listening experience, and only the former track’s limited fidelity, typical of its era, betrays its age. Both are just right for the stories they’re helping to tell.
    Special Features
    Eclipse releases do not include special features though the three slimcases included in this set each contain accompanying essays filled with biographical information about Akerman and critical examinations of each film’s content. They’re written by Michael Koresky.
    In Conclusion
    4/5 (not an average)
    Chantal Akerman is an acquired taste as a director for many viewers. Her shots are long, deliberate, and often held for uncomfortably long periods, so those with short attention spans may choose to look elsewhere for art films. Those willing to experiment with her deliberate, languorous style may find Chantal Akerman in the Seventies a set very much worth their time.
    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC

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